Why should you develop special collections assignments for your classes?

This entry was posted in Amy Hildreth Chen, Composition. Bookmark the permalink.

By Amy Chen, CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow

Last week, I posted about how to consider using special collections in your class and how to request a class session for this fall. This week, I thought I’d go over some of the key reasons special collections can help make your class an enriching learning experience for your students.


Hoole Reading Room, one of two locations where we can host classes. The Williams Reading Room in Gorgas Library is an additional space where we are happy to host students.

  1. Primary source assignments are nearly plagiarism-proof. The items students work with in special collections can be changed from semester to semester and holdings are unique to each institution, cutting down on students’ ability to plagiarize.
  2. Students enjoy learning about primary sources because they are different. Rather than reading yet another essay or book chapter, they can read a first-hand account or examine an item from the time you discuss. As a result, they will create projects that are unique, exciting, and original.
  3. When students feel ownership over their intellectual ideas, they are more invested in the learning process. Primary source work may be a bit more difficult than the type of reading and analysis your students are used to, but they will be motivated to push through their learning curve by their ability to say something new about items that may be infrequently viewed.
  4. Special collections assignments combat student passivity. Students cannot just sit at home on their computers to do research or go to a familiar library environment. They are forced to move out of their comfort zone and become competent at searching for information in new ways. The outcome is that students will become able to do primary source research for future classes and they will be learn to be assertive and articulate about their ideas when speaking to librarians and archivists.
  5. Special collections pedagogy is an emerging field. You can distinguish yourself as an instructor in your chosen discipline or in composition pedagogy by working with special collections.

Need some help thinking about how to integrate special collections into your assignments?

  1. Contact Amy Chen. Email Amy at ahchen [at] to schedule a meeting.
  2. Read about a successful initiative at UA. Check out our pedagogy series featuring Brooke Champagne’s first year writing classes from Fall 2013. This upcoming semester, the majority of honors first year writing sections will take archives as the theme of their course as a result of our successful collaboration.
  3. Read about a successful initiative elsewhere. profiles a multi-year project held at the Brooklyn Historical Society to bring primary source materials into college classrooms. offers a number of examples to get your creative juices going as you think about what to offer on your syllabus this year.

Want to see for yourself? Schedule a session.

This entry was posted in Amy Hildreth Chen, Composition. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *